No Politics, Please

Matsuo Basho, Japan’s renown haiku master of the 17th century had nothing to say of politics. Yes, nothing at all.

This may seem surprising for Basho was born in Iga Province which was known for its Ninja traditions. And, it is said, because of their Samurai background, and the family name, Matsuo, the family was accorded a farm.

Matsuo had brothers and sisters. We may guess the farm was not so large, for Matsuo (he was not Basho yet) left the ox and the plow and served Yoshitada Todo whose father was Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region. Matsuo’s master, Yoshitada had an affinity for poetry, and perhaps that is how Matsuo got his start. But Yoshitada died and Matsuo went to Kyoto to study.

By the age of 28, Matsuo compiled a book of haiku verse called Kai Oi (Shell Matching), which he dedicated to the Ueno Tenjingu Shinto Shrine. Soon after he left for Edo, capital to the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna . Like a child in a candy store, he immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Nihonbashi District, with its theater, music, performers, and exotic food stalls. In time he gathered students who came to him for instruction.

Enough, he said. And so he moved to the quieter Fukagawa District, across the Sumida River to a simple hut where he was given a banana as a housewarming gift. In time the banana grew to a tree. Battered by the wind, its leaves sometimes tattered, this otherwise useless tree provided some shade.

Fame follows Matsuo. Haiku are written, students gather. In time the banana plant becomes a tree. The banana tree is like me, Matsuo said. And that is how he became Matsuo Basho, “Matsuo the Banana”, or as he himself would say, a useless banana, blown to and fro by the wind, good for little, but to give shade.

How less political can one be.

Let me be an observer of life, he said. Let me listen and see what I hear. Haiku has its roots in  Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It is an art form which attempts to express ideas in a simple verse form consisting of seventeen syllables. No more, no less, though sometimes Basho would stretch or break this rule.

This would inspire what is perhaps Basho’s greatest haiku.

An old pond, a from jumps in, the sound of water, Aha!

古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音

This is not to say that Basho did not speak of distant politics and war. He admired loyalty. He admired lost cause, but he found melancholy in such loss. Thus, when thinking of General Sanemori who died in battle in 1183, he wrote the following haiku.

How piteous! Beneath the warrior’s helmet A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす

muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu

One almost wonders, if Basho thought, what is the point? What is the point of politics, to those who are born on a farm, to those who put down their swords, and take up the pen to write a poem?


This post was written in January of 2012 in the midst of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The author expresses no opinion on the current political situation.

A Pillow of Grass

Let us dine on barley grain
On a journey nowhere

(kusa makura)

come, together
let us eat barley grain
on a grass pillow

iza tomo ni/ homugi kurawan/ kusa makura


barley field, 麦畑

Summer 1685

On “a journey of a thousand leagues,” one that began in the autumn of 1684, a trip in which Basho would enter “into nothingness under the midnight moon,” and now, in the summer of 1685, was near its end, a chance meeting took place. It was a meeting that meant everything and nothing, remarkable enough to inspire a haiku, to remember, but nothing else.

The poet from Edo and the priest from Hirugakojima met somewhere near Nagoya in Owari province. Let us imagine the introduction:

“Come let us go together. As you see, you and I have no place to be. Asking for very little, eating a simple fare of barley grain, ‘neath the stars at night, sleeping on a pillow of grass until we say our goodbyes.”

We learn little of the priest other than the fact that he hails from the island of Hirugakojima (蛭が小嶋) in Izu. The significance becoming apparent only when we realize that the shrine and the temple on the island was built by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), who established the Kamakura shogunate, a play on words with kusamakura (草枕), the grass pillow.

In 1689, pursuant to his last wishes, Basho would be buried next to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a member of the Minamoto samurai clan.

Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field

It was the first of Matsuo Basho’s major wanderings, a trip that took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, then on to Ueno, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya, a trip begun in uncertainty for Basho made trip alone without provisions. Basho was 41, old enough to have achieved fame as poet and teacher, still uncertain about where life was leading him.

We need not tarry too long on this journey. David Landis Barnhill has given us a translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko).

Dewa Province Mogami River


David Landis Barnhill gives us a chronological translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko) .

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, Iza, let’s go

The Route, Nozarashi Kiko (野ざらし紀行), Several sources indicate that Basho was accompanied on the journey by his disciple Chiri. Chiri (塵) is an interesting moniker for it means dust. Dust was on occasion a subject of Basho’s haiku.

blossoms falling, birds startled by the harp’s dust
chiru hana ya / tori mo odoroku / koto no chiri

A dream within a dream, 夢のまた夢

As the dew appears
As the dew disappears
Such is my life, that Naniwa
Is a dream within a dream.

露と落ち     露と消えにし     我が身かな       難波のことは      夢のまた夢
tsuyu to ochi / tsuyu to kienishi / waga mi kana / naniwa no koto wa / yume no mata yume

[Death haiku of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)]



Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 豊臣 秀吉

The author of this dream poem is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), a military general in the late Warring States who succeeded in unifying much of Japan, and the precursor to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Hideyoshi died in 1598, but the final end to the Warring States came 15 years later at the siege of Osaka (大坂の役 Ōsaka no Eki), Hideyoshi’s dream castle called Naniwa.

Gentle reader, you are no doubt scratching the back of your neck, wondering why I have chosen to repeat Hideyoshi’s death haiku in a blog about Matsuo Bashō.

First, there is the obvious connection to Bashō’s own death haiku.

Second, I have wondered, as other scholars have, about Bashō’s claim to samurai status. Little is known. Little can be gleaned from Bashō’s own writings. We do know that Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644, near Ueno, in Iga Province. His brothers became farmers. Bashō became a servant to the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada, who had acquired the haikai name of Sengin. After Tōdō Yoshitada’s death, Basho traveled to Kyoto and studied haiku in earnest.

I have not come across a statement by Bashō himself that his father was of samurai status. He wrote about military battles often, and had a fondness for generals who died in battle. But the proof certain of his samurai status is not there.

There are at least two scenarios. First, that Bashō’s father Matsuo Yozaemon,or his grandfather fought for on the winning side with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Peace being established, the many armies were disbanded and low level samurai were given land to farm instead of swords to wield. It is also possible that the Matsuo clan fought with the opposing forces, with General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was based in Osaka, then called Naniwa. Osaka and Naniwa is near Ueno in Iga province, and Iga castle where he served the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada.

We will never know and I do not know that it matters. The poetry is beautiful; and, after all, life is what we make it.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)

Life as a dream

Life as a dream is a common metaphor. What are we to make of this?

William Shakespeare wrote plays about it. Lewis Carroll wrote about it in the delightful Alice in Wonderland. The 17th century Spanish poet and playwright, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, wrote a poem saying, “Man dreams the life that’s his,” and ending with “dreams themselves are dreams.” A dream within a dream.

Even a children’s nursery rhyme speaks of life as a merry illusion:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.